Popcorn Hour C-200 Networked Media Tank: Awesome hardware, lame software

Imagine a box that can play almost any video or audio file from anywhere, right there in your home theater. That's the promise of the $300 Syabas Popcorn Hour C-200, billed as a Networked Media Tank (NMT) that brings digital movies, photos and tunes to your living room via Ethernet, Wi-Fi, attached USB drive or internal hard disk. Syabas Technology, the maker of Popcorn Hour, sent us one of its boxes to review — let's see what it can do.

The Popcorn Hour C-200, affectionately known by its unusually enthusiastic followers as the PCH C-200, is about the size of a Blu-ray player. That $300 price doesn't include a hard drive, so to enjoy its full power, you'll need to install your own. That's a lot easier than it sounds, involving merely opening up its front door, sliding in the drive, and snapping the door shut behind it. We popped in a 320GB SATA drive, connected the C-200 to our home theater system via its HDMI port (you can also use component, composite, or S-Video connections) and it was ready to go.

When we first saw the user interface, our hearts sank. Aside from a carousel-like source screen, this awkward interface was like a throwback to something from 15 years ago. It's user-unfriendly, with confusing controls, lists of files, colorless except a blue background with white text, and comes with the worst documentation we've ever seen with any product. Making matters worse was Syabas's unresponsive tech support. Using it was like solving a frustrating puzzle. Overall, the software of the Popcorn Hour C-200 is unacceptable, and as clunky as any user interface we've ever seen. It's just terrible. Apple TV this ain't.

Undaunted, we set up network shares with the remote control, a tedious process that involves typing as if we were texting from a cellphone. But it was easy to plug in an external USB drive with a variety of movie files on board, and once we found them, they played perfectly. If we could somehow get accustomed to that awful user interface, we'd enjoy its BitTorrent capabilities, FTP functionality, streaming video from anywhere on a home network or Internet (including Flash sites like YouTube), and its quick gigabit Ethernet (or optional Wi-Fi) connectivity.

We were delighted to discover that the C-200's hardware is the most versatile and powerful we've ever seen for the home theater. It plays back high-resolution 1080p files magnificently, handles just about any video format we've ever seen except for DivX, accommodates an internal Blu-ray drive and plays its high-rez video with ease, has an radio-frequency (RF) remote control that's so powerful it can go through walls, and it even includes an IR blaster so you can use your universal remote. It handles all forms of digital surround sound, photos, subtitles, and anything else we threw at it. it even plays back those Matroska files that other mainstream commercial boxes won't touch. And except for that hokey Popcorn Hour logo on top which you'll probably never see after it's installed, even its case was first-rate. Great hardware all around.

We tested this unit extensively, and our feelings about it are enormously mixed. Its characteristics are both excellent and horrible at the same time. It's expensive — once you've procured a terabyte-sized hard drive or a Blu-ray drive to install inside it, its total price could skyrocket to $400 or even $500. For that kind of money, you're probably better off spending a few more bucks for a home theater PC like we reviewed last week, or soon, an even-cheaper $400 HP Mini 311 laptop, both of which can play 1080p files with ease, no matter what the file type. Still, with a lower price, and a total overhaul to its incompetent consumer-unfriendly user interface, the C-200 could have a chance at success. Unless that happens, the Popcorn Hour C-200 will remain mired in the realm of its enthusiastic cult of devoted tinkerers, geeks and hobbyists.